Amateur vs. Professional in Haligonian Theatre

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karen myatt, kyle gillis, anders balderston & cast

Should professional caliber actors be performing in community theatre productions?

This is a question I have been mulling over in my brain since I saw Theatre Arts Guild’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee back in June. It is a complex issue that offers both benefits and challenges to TAG, the artists who work there and the Halifax theatre community as a whole.

Ideally, the answer would be simple as Equity performers, those who belong to the union, are not permitted to do Community Theatre since artists there do not receive payment for their work. Yet, in Halifax the line between “professional actor” and “amateur actor” is a hazy one because often experienced and well trained artists delay becoming full Equity members since there are so few Equity jobs available to them. At the same time, with the emergence of Halifax’s independent theatre community less experienced and less trained actors are working in large numbers of productions in their own non-equity theatre companies that inhabit an ambiguous position between community playhouses and professional theatre. This means there is a lot of theatre in Halifax, which is fantastic, but also that the caliber of it is as inconsistent as a two year old’s eating habits, which can make things challenging for prospective audience members who want to see the best theatre this city has to offer.

The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there isn’t enough work, especially in musical theatre, for all the professional-caliber artists who live here to make it viable for them to make a living in the theatre in this city. It was a joy to see Kyle Gillis, Karen Myatt, Becca Guilderson and Anders Balderston shine so brightly in roles that they could quite conceivably have been cast in in a professional production of Spelling Bee. Karen Myatt brimmed with both sweetness and agony as the abandoned child Olive, who dreams only of her parents being attentive and proud of her. Becca Guilderson was exuberant and stressed as the over-achieving Logainne whose dads hate losers. Anders Balderston was elation on amphetamines as Leaf, the naive boy with the huge heart who just enjoys spelling. Kyle Gillis captured all the hilarity and the nuance of socially awkward, spelling sensation William Barfee, who spells out words with his magic foot. Each of these were performances that warranted a paycheque. Which begs the question: why aren’t we seeing more opportunity for these young actors to have their talents featured by a theatre like Neptune or for them to work with established directors, choreographers and musical directors from across the country?

It can certainly be beneficial to build a bridge between the Community theatre audience, which is both plentiful and passionate, and the independent and professional theatre communities of Halifax. It is important to make sure theatre lovers and theatregoers realize that all the artists who live and work here are part of their community and pretention or elitism are certainly not implicit to the professional theatre here.

Casting quasi-professionals in Community Theatre productions, of course, raises the caliber of the production for the audience, which is beneficial for them, but potentially unfair for the amateur actors the theatre was built to accommodate. Perhaps the larger question here is: what role do community theatres play in contemporary Halifax? Are they a stepping stone toward the professional theatre or the antithesis of it? If they are stepping stones then it would behoove Artistic Directors, theatre critics and members of the theatre community to make a point of attending these productions to keep abreast of the fresh talent we have in the city. It is not uncommon for me to see performances in the Community Theatres that show great promise and skill. In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, for example, Margaret Champion gave a beautiful performance as Rona Lisa Peretti, Spelling Bee moderator, former Spelling Bee winner and Putnam County Real Estate Agent. Community Theatre can also give more established performers the opportunity to be cast in roles that they may not get to play in the professional theatre, such as Andrew Chandler who made an unexpectedly fierce Mitch Mahoney: Comfort Counsellor/Convict. Conversely, if Community Theatres are primarily intended for those who consider theatre a hobby to have fun in an inclusive environment should these people have to compete with those who are working toward acting professionally for roles? In this case, should professional theatre critics even be reviewing them?

The solution, I think, is that both the professional theatre and the independent theatre in Halifax need to grow. It is clear that it is imperative that there be more opportunities for professional-caliber theatre artists in this city, both to perform in professional calibre productions and also to work with a myriad of established directors, writers and composers from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. I also think that it is problematic for our independent theatre community to be comprised of everyone who doesn’t fit into Community Theatre or Neptune Theatre, with little that differentiates the caliber of the many companies that includes, whose experience, length of careers, education, expertise and talent could NOT be more disparate. If Equity Cards are not the necessary markers of “Professionalism” in this city, what is? Or, should they be?

 In other cities there is an entire generation worth of young people who call themselves “emerging artists.” Some of them are Equity, some of them are not. Some of them have been nominated for Dora Awards, but they still consider themselves to be “emerging artists.” I love this concept. It contributes to the idea that a life in the theatre is an evolving journey toward being able to give the audience better and more interesting and exciting, new Canadian theatre. There is a stepping stone here between amateur and professional, which helps the audience navigate their expectations and gives artists the room they need to learn, to make mistakes, to be mentored and to grow.

Personally, I do think the Community Theatre can and should play a vibrant and special role as a part of this process. It is, after all, home of the theatre amateurs (literally “theatre lovers”) and so it is the perfect place to foster and encourage a passion for theatre, both in performers and crew members and in audience members as well, that will, hopefully, feed back into the Haligonian theatre as a whole.

Ideally, we should all be working together as often as we can to benefit that one common whole and to help the entire theatre community be richer and stronger.

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